From JSTOR Daily:
I have a theory that for writers, digital writing tools are just as influential as the mason’s choice of a particular compass or square.
Historian Lon Shelby wrote extensively about the building practices of the medieval masons behind the creation of such cathedrals as Chartres, iconic buildings that owe their creation and execution to the specific tools masons adopted for measurement and layout. “[U]ntil the history of their tools is adequately described,” Shelby writes, “the achievements of medieval masons cannot be properly evaluted from a technological point of view.” Shelby locates the geometry of these iconic buildings in the specific types of compass and square that masons had access to in the medieval era.
Is it really so different for current-day scribes? It’s not hard to goad writers into drawing virtual blood by asking them to expound on the relative merits of Ulysses and Bear, Markdown and rich text, or Microsoft Word vs Google Docs. And who isn’t a writer these days? From academics and students to corporate bloggers and analysts, there are few professionals who don’t spend at least some of their time cranking out paragraphs. Email alone ensures that most of us distribute more words per day than our grandparents might have sent forth in a year.
For all the time we spend cranking out words at a keyboard, however, we rarely stop to ask how all that keyboard time affects the way we write and communicate. It’s not just the keyboard that shapes our prose, of course; far more influential is the software in which we do our writing. That’s why it pays to think about what we want from our writing tools: not just as individual writers and communicators, but as readers and human beings with a stake in the ongoing evolution of our written culture.
The impact of our writing environment is on my mind because my writing process has just been transformed by Scrivener, an writing application I purchased several years ago but have only begun to properly use. I am a bit of a software junkie, so there’s nothing unusual about me trying out a new app as part of my endless quest for productivity perfection, or returning to an app I’ve tinkered with in order to take it for a more dedicated spin. I regularly cycle through new email clients, task managers, note-taking applications, data analysis tools, and image editors.
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If you’ve been using the same writing software for years and years, as I have, it’s easy to stop thinking about the impact your tools have on the day-to-day experience of writing. For the past decade, almost all my short-form writing has been drafted in Evernote, and for twenty-five years, all my long-form writing has taken place in Microsoft Word. I’m not giving up either of those tools, but spending the past month writing in Scrivener has reminded me that new tools enable new thoughts and new ways of working.
Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them.
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Matthew Kirchenbaum has written an entire book on the impact of word processing, the seeds of which appear in his article on how it transformed the work of John Updike:
Like many others [Updike] was at first captivated by the strange new device, declaring it “dazzling” more than once. Evidence of writers test driving their first word processor is a minor genre in their personal papers. One of the best known examples comes from Russell Banks when he was writing the novel that became Affliction: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” he wrote in all caps at the beginning of a document that is a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of its capabilities. “STRANGE EXPERIENCE, UNFAMILIAR MIXTURE OF SPEED AND SLOWDOWN.” A similar page by Salman Rushdie survives in his collection at Emory University. Stephen King, meanwhile, wrote a short story, “The Word Processor,” which was published in Playboy and stands as the first extended fictional treatment of the technology.
The kinds of praise that many writers, students, and writing teachers lavished on the emergent technology of word processing points to the very particular ways it changed the practice of writing. In an anecdotal assessment of her college students’ use of word processing in her English, Dawn Rodrigues writes that
I observed various ways in which the computer was affecting my students’ progress. First of all, the computer seemed to help reduce the students’ writing apprehension. Students who at the beginning of the semester wrote (in early journal entries) of being nervous about writing showed no anxiety at all as the course progressed. For instance, one student who couldn’t even think of an idea for a journal entry on the second day of class blossomed when he began writing on the computer. He explained in his journal that he wasn’t afraid to express himself because he knew that he could immediately delete any sentences which embarrassed him. Another student said that he liked writing with computers because he forgot to worry about what he was saying. He just enjoyed seeing the words appear.
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I’m no stranger to doing large-scale edits in Word; there was lots of big-picture rearranging involved in writing my dissertation, and later, in writing my series of ebooks. But it was a painful process, because Word (like most word processors and text editors) is set up as if the complete article (or essay, or report, or book) is the fundamental unit of work. Sure, you can move stuff around by cutting and pasting, but you have very limited options for keeping the overall structure of your work in mind as you do. Word is fundamentally a tool designed to facilitate the modest changes described by Collier.
Scrivener, on the other hand, is set up to facilitate what Dave and Russell refer to as “global revision.” It encourages writers to slice their work up into the smallest viable units: not just chapters or even sections, but individual scenes, quotes or arguments. (To write this article in Scrivener, I imported each of the quotes you read above as individual documents, so that I could pull them in and rearrange them at will.) When you look at your work through the constant lens of its component parts, it’s much easier to undertake ambitious restructuring—not just technically easier, but conceptually easier, because you can see the parts that make up the whole.
Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily
PG still misses WordPerfect.